Saturday, December 12, 2009

Proust and the Squid

Proust & the Squid: the science of the reading brain / Maryanne Wolf
HarperCollins, c2007
320 p.

This is another selection in my current streak of books about the purpose of reading in our lives. This one differs a little as it focuses on the neuroscience behind the process of reading, and looks at it also from the point of view of the brain which can't quite figure out that process, the brain of dyslexics.

I found it overall an engaging read; neuroscience is intrinsically fascinating to me, and to have neuroscience and reading in the same book, well, how could it get better than that?

The book is set up in three sections: the first, a look at how reading and writing evolved in history; the second, a look at how the brain deciphers written language and shapes itself to become a reading brain; and the third, a discussion of what can be learned about the brain and reading through the study of dyslexic brains.

I love this kind of writing; reading is obviously very important to me, personally and professionally, and this gave me a lot to think about. The first section, on the development of writing and alphabetic systems in human history, ties in to a couple of other books on my shelves (and doesn't reading one thing always lead to more?). I'm currently reading Joseph Gold's The Story Species, which also discusses this topic, and have Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet and the Goddess on tap. Looking at how the actual form of writing, whether alphabetic or ideographic, affects the brain, Wolf draws many conclusions about the process of deciphering text. This then leads in to the second part of the book, a discussion of how children's brains are shaped by learning to read, and how the brain adapts itself to support the reading function. Not knowing the science behind this topic, I can't say whether it is all as straightforward as is presented, but Wolf writes very compellingly, and has many endnotes to support her argument. (which of course leads to more reading...)

The last section of the book was focusing on dyslexia, Wolf's area of study. While it was interesting and certainly showed how passionate she is about this topic, it was of slightly less immediate interest to me. Educators might find it very helpful, however, and parents of dyslexic children certainly would as well. I enjoyed this book - her writing is very readable despite some of the dry research she is sharing. This is a good book to pick up if you are interested in the development of reading itself and how our physical structure supports our cultural invention of reading and writing.

If you are intrigued by the science of the reading brain there is also a wonderful website called On Fiction which is all about the psychology of reading and links to hundreds of other books and research that you might like to explore.

Other reviews:

Tom at A Common Reader sums it up very nicely

Eva at A Striped Armchair gives it her seal of approval

Jess at Start Narrative Here takes a look


  1. It sounds really interesting. I don't think I've ever read a book on this topic before.

  2. Oh, this is just my kind of nonfiction book! The brain and the science of reading is a fascinating study~

  3. I absolutely love this sort of book! I think these would fit very nicely with my own love of "the history of English" type books. These are all on my list to read as soon as I can manage it!

  4. This book does sound really interesting -- I love reading about reading too, although I haven't done it from the scientific perspective before. I sounds well worth checking out.

  5. This sounds really interesting. :)

  6. Jeane - it is a good intro; quite good and you can easily skip the really in-detail paragraphs without losing much ;)

    StephanieD - yes, the brain is so interesting to read about! and of course reading itself is endlessly fascinating.

    Phyl - definitely of interest to a person who likes "history of English" kind of things. I think the Shlain would be esp. good - I've had it on the TBR for ages!

    Dorothy - I liked this one even if the pacing was a bit uneven...very full of intriguing facts

    Kailana - yes, readers will enjoy it - and feel reassured that our habit is a healthful, brain strengthening one!

  7. As a teacher and someone with a psych degree, my first thought was that this doesn't sound like down town to me. But your review makes it sound compelling enough to make me want to give it a shot.

  8. I started this, but put it down after only a few pages and never picked it back up. I still want to read it... and even more now that you've praised it.

  9. I've got this book on my holiday vacation reading pile. I love neuroscience too especially when applied to my favorite subject of reading! And thanks for that On Fiction link. I know what I'll be doing during the boring parts of my day today!

  10. John - it's not a perfect book, but had enough information in it to make it a worthwhile read, for me

    softdrink - this was actually the second time I borrowed this one from the library - the first time I didn't read past the first few pages. Had to be in the mood for nonfiction, I guess!

    Stefanie - I have spent hours exploring On Fiction! It's a wonderful resource, have fun with it.


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